Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: Rugby teams meet to fight ALS

Rugby star Doddie Weir was diagnosed with ALS. Steve Bardens/Getty Images for RPA

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When the men’s national rugby teams from the USA and Scotland take the pitch at BBVA Compass Stadium June 16, they’ll be battling for more than just an international victory.

They will be raising awareness and funds for what Americans call amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease and what the UK calls Motor Neurone Disease.

More than 5,000 people each year are diagnosed with the incurable, debilitating neurological disease that has no cure. Gehrig was the first athlete in the U.S. to be diagnosed and bring awareness to the illness, which presents and progresses differently in every patient.

A little over a year ago, the disease struck one of Scotland’s iconic players – Doddie Weir – and he has launched his own foundation to help raise funds. Weir, who retired from the game in 2004, has been able to walk on his own and brought some 67,000 spectators to their feet at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Staduim last fall when he carried the game ball onto the pitch for a union match between Scotland and New Zealand.

Although he won’t be able to travel to Houston for the game, Weir’s My Name5 Doddie Founation – the 5 incorporates his jersey number in the name – and Houston Methodist Institute’s Neurological ALS Clinic will benefit from the event.

The acclaimed Methodist Clinic’s multi-disciplinary approach has become the gold standard for ALS care.  Dr. Stanley H. Appel , the clinic director, was the first to implement the approach where neurologists, pulmonologists, respiratory therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, dieticians, social workers and nurses work as a team with patients.

“Dr. Appel saw that this was what was needed to manage this illness,’’ said Methodist ALS Clinic Coordinator Karen Toennis. “Like I tell folks, there is no cure, but we can treat this and we can manage it.’’

O.J. Brigance, a former Rice star linebacker who was on the Baltimore Ravens’ 2001 Super Bowl Championship team, has lived with the disease for 11 years now. Although he is in a wheelchair and relies on a special computer he communicates with by controlling keys with his eyes, Brigance is one of the bright lights in the fight. Not only is he still working for the Ravens as Senior Advisor to Player Engagement, his Brigance Brigade Foundation raises funds and awareness. Brigance was a patient at Methodist for a bit, but is now treated close to home at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

He wrote a book with that eye-assisted computer - "Strength of a Champion" – about his journey with ALS and was in Houston two weeks ago to raise awareness at Rice.

Brilliant theoretical scientist and acclaimed Cambridge professor Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with the disease in 1963 and given two years to live. Hawking, who, like Brigance was in a wheelchair and communicated with eye-assisted computer, lived with the disease for 55 years before passing away in March at the age of 76.

“(ALS) patients don’t lose that eye function,’’ said Methodist ALS Clinic coordinator Karen Toennis. ‘’So this is where those computers are such a God send.’’

Other athletes living with the disease include former San Francisco 49er receiver Dwight Clark and former New Orleans Saint safety Steve Gleason.

“They don’t know what causes ALS,’’ Toennis said. “It still has our greatest scientists scratching their heads.’’

The complex disease can take up to a year to diagnose, but events like the June 16 match and foundations are raising money for research – and, they hope, an eventual cure.

There are a few promising projects moving forward including Appel’s study on the effect of immune response.

“He’s trying to work with body’s own immune system to slow the progression,’’ Toennis said.

To donate to ALS research through the rugby match, you can go to  https://sportsauthorityfoundation.org/donate.


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5 observations from the Ravens win over the Texans

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Let's be honest; the Texans were not going to beat the Ravens. Baltimore has better players, a better quarterback and a better coaching staff. (And oh, a better kicker). All of that was on display in the Ravens' 33-16 win.

The Ravens move to 2-0, while the Texans dropped to 0-2 after facing the AFC's two best teams.

The Texans will still likely contend for a playoff spot, but nothing the last two weeks indicates they are anywhere near contending in the AFC. A look at five things from the Ravens win:

1) Oh, Brien...It did not take long for Bill O'Brien's goofy coaching to rear its ugly head. Down 3-0 at their own 34 as the first quarter was running out, O'Brien chose to go for it on fourth and one. The play was predictably blown up, the Ravens quickly scored to make it 10-0, and the Texans were instantly in a hole against a superior opponent. You can't give points away against the Ravens. They might have scored anyway with a punt, but there was no stopping them with a short field.

2) Some positives on defense. Despite the score, The Texans looked much better on that side of the ball against an explosive offense. J.J. Watt had two sacks, the team had four total, and they kept Lamar Jackson from destroying them. Seven of the points were scored by the Ravens defense, and O'Brien's gaffe led to seven more. The Ravens wore them down in the fourth quarter, but they played well enough until then to keep the team in the game had the offense been better. They did not force any turnovers, however, and that was one of the differences in the game. They were also blown off the ball on a fourth and one in the fourth quarter that led to the Ravens' 30th points and could not stop the run at all in the fourth quarter. But that's what the Ravens do with a lead, and the Texans offense gave them no breaks by being unable to stay on the field.

3) The difference between real contenders...The Ravens were just so much more skilled on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they focused on taking away the run. David Johnson averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Will Fuller had as many catches as you did. The Ravens forced two turnovers on just really good football plays. The Texans don't make plays like that. They might against lesser teams, but if your goal is to compete with the best, it's just not good enough.

4) Deshaun Watson needs to be better. His numbers looked so so on the surface (25 of 36, 275 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception). He was sacked four times and added 17 rushing yards on five carries. He did not make plays late when they needed one here or there to maybe get back in the game. With his big contract, it's time for Watson to stop being close to elite and take the next step. His interception was more of being fooled by Marcus Peters than throwing a bad ball, but the Texans were just 3 of 9 on third downs. Throw in the ill-advised fourth down play, and they were just 3 of 10 extending drives. Give the Ravens a lot of credit, but again, to compete with the best, you have to be better than that.

5) Now what? The Texans travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers, who have not been impressive in their two wins. Still, it's hard to see Houston as anything but serious underdogs. They are last in the AFC South, and have a lot of work to do. The defense showed some promise at times, but will have to continue to improve. The offense has a long way to go. They match up better with the Steelers than they do the Ravens and Chiefs, but that does not mean they can win. If you were hoping they would give you some indication they can be more than just also-rans, they failed to do that on any level against either the Chiefs or Ravens.

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